With the tens of thousands of airplane models that have been built and flown since the days of the Brothers Wright, how is it even possible to come up with a list of the greatest planes of them all?
It’s a fair question, and it’s one we’ve spent a great deal of time discussing before we even embarked upon the journey. At first glance, the exercise seems a bit silly. After all, planes come in so many different shapes and sizes, with an equal number of mission types to match. How could you possibly choose just one?
But the more we thought about it, the more sense it made to us. To start with, we needed to acknowledge that there are a lot of great airplanes. There are also a lot of historically significant airplanes, which is a more exclusive club, we decided. But finally, there is a level of greatness that you can indeed measure using a few distinct and, in most cases, at least somewhat quantifiable categories, such as how many were built or what its top speed is or how long it was in service.
But looking at the different kinds of mission types, i.e., training, personal transportation, commercial transportation, fighters, bombers, reconnaissance and more, we decided to narrow things down even more by asking ourselves if there were a top dog among those planes.
Surprisingly, the answer to that question was often an unequivocal, “Yes!” That surprised us to no end, but the more we reflected upon it, the more we knew it was true.
So without further ado, we proudly present our list of the Top 25 Planes of All Time. Enjoy!
The test of time is a good way to judge success, and in a marketplace like aviation, utility and reliability go a long way toward keeping customers satisfied and budgets in the black. The C-130 Hercules, a medium transport built by Lockheed-Martin (just Lockheed for much of its production life) is just such a plane. The big, four-engine transport is not only rugged and reliable, but it’s also highly convertible, so it can play several different roles, from search and rescue to troop hauling to cargo transport to surveillance and more. The plane is one of the longest-serving military planes in U.S. history and has the longest military production history of any plane, not just in the United States but also in the world. The C-130 first flew in 1954, and it has stayed in continuous operation since then, in part because it was the lucky recipient of a design suite mated to a technology new at the time, the turbine-powered propeller engine, referred to as the turboprop, that was not only perfect for the C-130 but also became better and better suited for it over time as turboprop power and fuel efficiency improved. A big, strong, highly reconfigurable platform with a lot of uses, the C-130 was ready for the growth. It has, in fact, been upgraded several times; in all, there have been 12 editions of C-130, some of them special mission models, and several dash-number-specific upgrade programs have been implemented as well. In all, Lockheed-Martin has built more than 2,500 C-130s.
Photo by Steve Lynes from Sandhurst, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0